The Best Computer for Cruising

A computer is a sophisticated jumble of electronic components that hate the cruising lifestyle… the salt air, the humidity, saltwater, all conspire against cruisers using computers.   The myriad of choices are overwhelming, but commuter cruisers generally do have one advantage in that their computers will go home after cruising for six months and get a breather by being inside in the lower humidity and air conditioning of a “normal” house.      This allows them to “dry out”.    I’ve been through 5 laptop/notebook computers since we bought the boat 10 years ago:   2 Dell Inspiron laptops, 1 Acer laptop, a EEEPc notebook and the laptop that I’m currently using … a four year old MacBook Pro.

Along the way, we had a laptop stolen, forcing us to replace it while in Honduras – luckily we were able to speak enough Spanish to communicate to a local computer store in LaCeiba, Honduras what I was looking for and they managed to find me an Acer with an English keyboard – I did NOT want a Spanish keyboard …. I can never remember how to get the @ on a Spanish keyboard!!!

We also added an extra laptop, a micro version from EEEPc that we bought specifically to take to Peru on a 5 week land adventure.  Since we were packing light — one backpack apiece, a carry bag and a camera backpack – we wanted to carry on all our luggage for the 5 weeks, I wanted a smaller less expensive laptop that would double as a photo storage unit.   And that I wouldn’t freak out if it went missing as things tend to do sometimes traveling in 3rd world countries.   The EEEPc worked well for it’s initial duties, then accompanied us for two seasons of cruising.  After the first season, the keyboard went bad – in fact both the MacBook Pro AND EEEPc’s keyboard’s had critical keys that refused to function, forcing us to buy an USB keyboard while still in Panama.  Luckily, I was able to get an English keyboard again!  I lucked out twice in two different Central American countries being able to obtain English keyboards amongst the myriad of Spanish keyboard in stock!   Both the Mac and EEEPc keyboard fixes were covered under warranty, but both involved replacing the logic board, whatever that is, so when they came back to me, they were sans important stuff and I had to reload software.    Luckily not too tough since by then I was using an external hard drive to back up everything.

Commuter Cruiser MacBook Pro With Aluminum Stand Underneath

Commuter Cruiser MacBook Pro With Aluminum Stand Underneath

We’ve never invested in an “all weather” computer, although I’ve been tempted a few times.  Most of the “more durable” computers, such as the Panasonic Tough Book, are also very heavy and bulky (in addition to expensive) – which isn’t good for toting it around as is usual with the commuter cruiser lifestyle.   We’ve never known other cruisers that had one of these types of laptops aboard, so I’m jumping to a conclusion that there must be a reason, I just don’t know exactly what it is from firsthand experience.

Both the Dell Inspiron laptops were fine, they ran the software I needed for cruising — I have Nobeltec Admiral for electronic navigation and use Sailmail for e-mail with the SSB/Pactor III modem.  Both of those programs will ONLY run on Windows, not on a Mac.   My experience with the Dells is that they averaged about 3 years each before becoming stubborn and refusing to do whatever.   Prior to taking them Commuter Cruising, my Dells lasted longer, but they weren’t exposed to the elements in tropical paradise.

The Acer laptop was a piece of crap from the start … the ONLY thing good about that laptop was the price.  After less than a year the DVD/CD drive quit – while we were out cruising, of course.  After that, we bought a little screen DVD player to watch movies on instead of the laptop.  It worked out fine because the little DVD player uses lots fewer amps than the laptop did … making my amp ogre husband happier to watch a movie.

My current MacBook Pro (knock on teak) is humming right along.  It’s had it’s logic board replaced twice – luckily both times under warranty, first for the keyboard and then for totally locking up and refusing to turn on.     Both times I was able to jerry-rig a solution until we got back to the US.  First we used the USB keyboard and the second time, I had the little EEEPc aboard, so we just put the MacBook Pro away and used the EEEPc for the balance of the season.  As a matter of fact, the EEEPc is still aboard – we left it aboard this summer rather than tote it back and forth.  Last time I checked (May 2011), it still works fine, albeit with the external USB keyboard.

I love the Mac, although I will admit it can be a bit of a pain to switch to the Bootcamp software for Windows when running Nobeltec or Sailmail.  I started out using Parallels because I could supposedly “seamlessly” switch between Windows and Mac, but I didn’t like it at all — I don’t know if I didn’t know how to use it or if it just was full of bugs, but I quit using Parallels and changed to Bootcamp shortly after getting the Mac.

We do all our cruise planning on the laptop with our Nobeltec Passport charts.  We also have the laptop running plugged into the GPS for critical navigation.  It’s a duplicate system though since we have a Garmin GPS at the helm that has a small screen – no chart plotters and fancy new electronics at Winterlude’s helm.      Since we bought the little DVD player, we no longer watch movies on the laptop.    We get our daily e-mail connected to the SSB with Sailmail software we downloaded from the Sailmail site – it also runs Winlink for us as we have both e-mail addresses – one for “business” and one for personal since you cannot use Winlink with anything that remotely has dollar signs attached.   I download and back up my photos every few days and use it to write, obviously.  I back it up regularly with a separate external hard drive and Time Machine – which has saved my bacon more than once! – we have an external hard drive on the boat hidden in a different location than around the nav desk where thieves nabbed my last Dell (see “Robbed in Utila”) and one at the house which we put in the safety deposit box while we’re off cruising.

EEEPc On Duty, Checking E-Mail with the SSB/Pactor III Modem

EEEPc On Duty, Checking E-Mail with the SSB/Pactor III Modem

I don’t know all the right answers for a computer aboard a boat, but here are some questions you need to ascertain if you’re shopping for the “Best Computer for Cruising”:

1.  What do you want the computer to do aboard — i.e. navigation, e-mail, weather, writing, editing photos,  watching movies, playing games, the list can be almost endless, but when you’re buying software, it’s an important decision – some programs don’t run on Mac and vice versa.  If I had already been a Mac convert when we were equipping the boat, we would not have Nobeltec navigation software, we’d have one of the excellent Mac navigation programs available.  But I still would have to run Bootcamp for Sailmail.    Once you know what you want the computer to do aboard, you can move to step 2.

2.  How many amps does the greedy little box need?  Typically laptops use a lot of amps – this is one of my biggest frustrations aboard because while I can leave it on and ready at home all the time, on the boat I usually get a half hour in the morning and half hour in the evening if we’re not underway needing it for navigation. No long leisurely writing sessions, I jot my notes the old fashioned way when writing and then put it in the computer later.  I would love to get one of the nice solar charging setups designed especially for laptops, but the $600+ price tag is a bit much.  Systems costing less don’t appear that they could handle the amp load.

3.  How are you going to “keep it cool”?  Laptops get warm in the best of conditions and on the boat they can overheat easily if you’re not careful.  I have a “ILap” rain design aluminum stand that my Mac sits on to allow air to circulate underneath helping to keep it cooler.   If it’s over the top hot, I have a portable “port fan” from Hotwire that I plug in and run at one end blowing air under the Mac.

4.  Consider what you want to do for internet – we don’t have a longer range wireless antenna than  what’s in the computer because there was never wireless available in the NW Caribbean.  Like everywhere else, I’m sure that’s changing quickly.  Since we’re not sure where we’re going from here, we may add a stronger wireless antenna when we return in the fall.  When we left Annapolis in September 2001, I had a GlobalStar satellite phone that I needed for business (when you have your own company, you’re never really “on vacation!”)  We had the data kit connection and used it to access internet and weather – very expensive and very slow.  After our first season cruising, I sold the GlobalStar on e-bay and got an Iridium sat phone which we’ve never hooked up for data.   While we were in Honduras and Guatemala, we had a cell phone that connected to the computer for internet, and the last season in the San Blas (2009) we had a cell phone that connected to the laptop with a cord that allowed almost acceptable internet.

GO SAILING and enjoy your cruise!  At least for me, the laptop becomes less of my life while we’re out cruising.  Too much to do and too much fun to be had to be playing on this laptop for hours!   I cannot WAIT til October!!!

Do you have a laptop setup aboard that you love?  Mine’s dated since the laptop is over 4 years old.  Leave a comment and let us know what you’re doing … one of these days this Mac is going to die and then I’ll need to think about what I’ll do next!   THX!   Jan



  1. Frances says:

    It’s amazing how much personality comes through on a website……I love yours and love the Boat Galley.

    Not cruising full time yet. For computer have a MacBook Pro which has been very reliable so far. Bought a 12V charger online from Amazon……Apple does not provide. I use GPSNavX on it which works well and is easy

    Also have an old, old, HP 17″ screen laptop. Belonged to our son who used it offshore when he worked on the rigs. I use DigiNav on it. (Not as easy to use as the GPSNavX but still functional) Love the big screen. It’s at the end of its life though, and keeps turning itself off….not good.

    • Thank you Frances! I’m leaning toward adding the GPSNavX to this MacBook Pro, but I just added Navionics to my IPhone and it’s not bad – not as good as the Garmin charts, but that has me thinking that maybe a good back up to our back up (currently we have three — the Garmin BlueCharts at the helm, the Nobeltec Time Odyssey that’s making me crazy and now the IPhone Navionics. I’ve always been curious about the GPSNavX, so I’m glad to get your comment. We’ll have to make some changes sometime in the next year or two. Cheers! Jan

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